- Concrete and canals
- City life:
- Culture and curry
The metropolis of the Midlands, Birmingham’s a-buzz with shoppers, music fans and lovers of art and architecture who appreciate the urban aura of the city.
Britain’s second city has had quite the makeover during the course of the last decade, shaking off its industrial past to become a hub of culture, cuisine and cutting-edge design. Whether you’re admiring the exhibitions at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, loving the live music at the Custard Factory or boarding a boat on a canal system hailed as one of the most intricate in the world (move over, Venice), Brum’s finally shaking off its industrial past.
The balti curry – a British favourite that’s named with the Hindu word for the ‘bucket’ in which it’s served – is rumoured to have been born in Birmingham; whatever its actual provenance, the dish definitely made its UK debut here, back in the 1980s. Today there are balti houses throughout the city (and local devotees swear you can’t get a proper balti anywhere else), but the most famous are in the ‘Balti Triangle’ between Ladypool Road, Stoney Lane and Stratford Road, just outside the city centre.
- Taxis are easily hailed in the city-centre streets, and the main ranks are at New Street Station, Digbeth Coach Station and Stephenson Street. The city’s black cabs are run by TOA Taxis (0121 427 8888).
- Tipping culture
- 10 per cent is usual in restaurants, but some add a discretionary service charge to the bill automatically – double check to make sure you don’t double pay. Tips aren’t automatically expected in bars or taxis, but are appreciated.
- Packing tips
- Shoes that won’t give you blisters: from canal-side strolls and café hopping at Brindleyplace to all-day shopping expeditions at the Bullring, there’s plenty to see on foot.
- Recommended reads
- New Zealand might get all the Tolkien attention these days, but the young JRR grew up near Birmingham and credited Moseley Bog as inspiration for Middle Earth’s forests in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Jonathon Coe’s The Rotters’ Club is based on the author’s life in 1970s Birmingham, and David Lodge fictionalised it as Rummidge, the setting for his novels Changing Places, Small World, Nice Work and Thinks…. Poet Benjamin Zephaniah hails from the inner-city Handsworth neighbourhood and did his first writing and performing around Birmingham before leaving at 22: his poem The Big Bang looks back at his hometown years later. Romance novel fans were outraged when it emerged that the M6 toll road leading to Birmingham was topped with pulped Mills & Boon books, so a copy of Louise Allen’s Seduced by the Scoundrel or Disrobed & Dishonoured might be appropriate.
- Regional specialities
- Several British staples were developed in Birmingham. Back in 1824, John Cadbury started selling chocolate on Bull Street, then in 1837 Alfred Bird invented his eponymous custard powder at his chemist’s shop down the road (he invented baking powder a few years later). HP Sauce was launched by the Midlands Vinegar Company in Aston in 1903, the same year that the first ever pot of Typhoo tea was brewed — also in Birmingham. In the 1980s, the debut of the balti made Birmingham the UK's ‘curry capital'.
- Pound sterling.
- Dialling codes
- Country code for the UK: +44. Area code for Birmingham: (0)121.
- Do go/don't go
- January’s usually the coldest month, and Birmingham’s gets hit by a relatively high number of snow days in comparison to the rest of England. May to August is the most reliably temperate time (this being England, though, don’t count on too many sunny days in a row).
Don't go home without...
…exploring the city by boat. Take to the water and see a different side to the city on a traditional canal boat. Hour-long or half-hour tours on traditional canal boats: waterborne tours are available from Second City Boats (www.secondcityboats.co.uk).